June 23, 2008

Echoes of Prester John

If one waits long enough, I suppose, one will see every fantasy of the past reborn. Writing in the Asia Times Online, Spengler threatens Muslims with a familiar bogey man of the past:


As Father Dall'Oglio warns darkly, Muslims are in dialogue with a pope who evidently does not merely want to exchange pleasantries about coexistence, but to convert them. This no doubt will offend Muslim sensibilities, but Muslim leaders are well-advised to remain on good terms with Benedict XVI. Worse things await them. There are 100 million new Chinese Christians, and some of them speak of marching to Jerusalem - from the East. A website entitled Back to Jerusalem proclaims, "From the Great Wall of China through Central Asia along the silk roads, the Chinese house churches are called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ all the way back to Jerusalem."

It is reminiscent of a figure whose supposedly vast realms and millions of followers comforted medieval Christians confronted with aggressive Islamic expansion. Much like the bogus website Spengler cites, a text of dubious origins set off the hope for the coming of Prester John:

In the twelfth century, a mysterious letter began to circulate around Europe. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. This letter was supposedly written by a king known as Prester John.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the legend of Prester John sparked geographic exploration across Asia and Africa. The letter first surfaced in Europe as early as the 1160s, claiming to be from Prester (a corrupted form of the word Presbyter or Priest) John. There were over one-hundred different versions of the letter published over the following few centuries. Most often, the letter was addressed to Emanuel I, the Byzantine Emperor of Rome, though other editions were also often addressed to the Pope or the King of France.

The letters said that Prester John ruled a huge Christian kingdom in the East, comprising the "three Indias." His letters told of his crime-free and vice-free peaceful kingdom, where "honey flows in our land and milk everywhere abounds." (Kimble, 130) Prester John also "wrote" that he was besieged by infidels and barbarians and he needed the help of Christian European armies. In 1177, Pope Alexander III sent his friend Master Philip to find Prester John; he never did.


The lands of Prester John were never found of course, just as I doubt the 100 million strong Chinese Catholic Church with its mission of back to Jerusalem will ever be much more than a Web site -- and a comforting myth for the deluded.

Posted by Ideofact at June 23, 2008 10:04 PM